Trump was once so involved in trying to block an Indian casino that he secretly approved attack ads – Los Angeles Times

Soon after an American Indian tribe announced plans to open a casino at a Catskills horse track, ads started appearing in local newspapers and on radio, sounding an alarm about unbridled crime and corruption.

They came from the New York Institute for Law and Society, a new self-described grass-roots anti-gambling group targeting the St. Regis Mohawks. Its campaign in 2000, supposedly supported by 12,000 “pro-family” donors, warned of the evils an Indian casino would bring: “increased crime, broken families, bankruptcies and, in the case of the Mohawks, violence.”

But there were no 12,000 donors. Virtually all the money for the campaign, more than $1 million, came from Donald Trump.

The institute was the brainchild of Trump’s longtime lobbyist and consultant, Roger Stone, and Trump himself was hands-on — not just paying the bills, but signing off on ad copy or radio scripts depicting the tribe as violent criminals and drug dealers. When Stone hired private investigators to dig up dirt on the Mohawks, Trump secretly paid the bills.

“Roger – This could be good!” Trump scrawled across one ad that included a picture of hypodermic needles and lines of powder meant to depict cocaine, underneath the headline: “Drug Dealing at Monticello?,” the name of the track. The ad ran in Catskills newspapers, credited to the institute.

Trump has pointed to his experience in business and real estate as the main argument for why he should be president. As he prepares to accept the Republican presidential nomination at the party’s convention in July, some of the more combative and controversial episodes in his long career, including the anti-Mohawk campaign, are coming under renewed scrutiny. Hundreds of pages of records from a New York agency’s investigation into the ad campaign, obtained by the Los Angeles Times, reveal new details about Trump’s covert fight against the tribe. It was unusual not only for how deeply involved he was, but for the sharp tone of the attacks and the elaborate attempt to conceal his role.

Stone told state investigators that he thought the public might pay attention to a “pro-family” group, but not to Trump, a loud and longtime critic of Native American gambling who was trying to stave off competition for his three casinos in Atlantic City.

“You could hide Trump’s actions? From the public?” the investigators grilled Stone. “And you did that? Over and over again?”

“Yes,” Stone answered each time, finally adding: “Nothing wrong with that, by the way.”

The agency, the state’s Temporary Commission on Lobbying, disagreed. Trump paid $250,000 for violating state law on lobbying and was forced to make a rare public apology.

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In a recent interview, Stone said the ads were accurate, based on news accounts, and insisted that the casino campaign broke no laws. He said Trump, whose presidential campaign did not respond to detailed questions, was entitled to secrecy, like other donors to nonprofit advocacy groups.

“Sorry, kiss my …, that’s a 1st Amendment issue,” Stone said, adding that the ads weren’t lobbying because they didn’t advocate for or against specific bills. “Donald wanted to settle because it was easier. We both thought we could win a long, drawn-out case.”

In the rough-and-tumble casino business, Trump was not the only executive to use a public-opinion campaign to try to thwart would-be rivals. Tribes themselves have spent heavily to block competitors, including in California.

The St. Regis tribe of Mohawk Indians opened a casino in 1999, on ancestral land in New York. The tribe had ambitions to capture more of the New York City gambling market and began working on a deal to open a casino at Monticello Raceway in the Catskill Mountains, less than two hours from the city.

At the time, Atlantic City was the region’s dominant casino hub, and Trump was still its biggest operator, with three hotel-casinos. Trump had weathered one bankruptcy that left him with a reduced stake and a company laboring under huge debts. Indian casinos in Connecticut had already captured some of Atlantic City’s business, and Trump said he thought he would be “devastated” by more competition.

View more of the ads Trump approved »

Stone, who has a tattoo of former President Nixon on his back and revels in a reputation as a political henchman, came up with the idea to run the anti-Mohawk campaign under the guise of the institute, as well as the idea to set it up as a nonprofit corporation under section 501(c)(4) of the U.S. tax code, which allows such groups to keep their donors secret.

In recent elections, similar so-called dark-money nonprofits have poured hundreds of millions of dollars in undisclosed contributions into campaign advertising. Trump has bragged about spurning similar outside spending for his presidential campaign, though he has recently gotten backing from super PACs.

Trump signed off on just about everything, Stone told investigators.

“There were no expenditures that weren’t approved by Mr. Trump himself,” said Stone, who started working for Trump in the 1980s. “He saw the ads, television ads, which he would see on a video machine, radio ads, you play on a tape recorder, or newspaper ads, which he would see the artwork for.”

The ads hit hard, highlighting news about crimes involving Mohawks to question whether the tribe was fit to run a casino. The Mohawk territory, straddling the U.S. and Canada, has been a hot spot for cigarette and liquor smuggling; some tribal members have been accused of drug trafficking and dealing with mob figures.

“Now the Mohawks want state approval of a $500 million casino … opening the door for organized crime,” said one ad.

Another attacked gambling as evil: “If you think this stinks, it’s because casino gambling stinks.


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